New York’s election laws come under attack by Dems

Democrats preparing to take control of New York’s legislature are plotting to overhaul voting and elections laws that were last updated to protect the power of Tammany Hall.

Legislators and voting rights activists say New York’s laws are among the nation’s most antiquated. It is one of a minority of states that do not allow voters to cast a ballot before Election Day, and its absentee ballot laws are among the most restrictive in the country.

After notching big gains in the 2018 midterm elections, Democratic leaders who will take over the state Senate in January say they will act on a handful of measures meant to update those laws.

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“We have some of the worst election laws in the country,” said Brian Kavanagh, a New York state senator who will head the Senate Elections Committee next year. “We really are poised to move forward to going from having one of the worst sets of laws in the country to having one of the best.”

Kavanagh has introduced a bill that would allow voters to cast ballots before Election Day. Early voting is allowed in 37 states and the District of Columbia, but not in New York, which with 12.7 million registered voters is by far the largest state with no advance voting regime.

State Sen. Michael Gianaris (D) has introduced legislation that would automatically register eligible voters when they interact with state government, a practice already in place in 14 states and Washington, D.C. Those states range from liberal California to deep red Alaska and West Virginia.

Some new overhauls would require legislators to rewrite the state constitution, which enshrines some of the most restrictive roadblocks to voting.

Gianaris has proposed allowing eligible voters to register and cast a ballot on Election Day. State Sen. Leroy Comrie (D) introduced legislation to allow voting by absentee ballot without an excuse. Both bills would require amending the state constitution.

The reform efforts also target some restrictions uniquely burdensome to New York voters.

For example, New York has a law that requires a voter to change their party registration more than a full year before Election Day if he or she wants to participate in a party primary. 

The law frustrated thousands of New Yorkers who wanted to cast a ballot for Sen. Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersCorker to introduce resolution holding Saudi crown prince 'responsible' for Khashoggi's death Gillum reached out to O’Rourke amid 2020 speculation: report O'Rourke spoke with Al Sharpton amid 2020 speculation MORE (I-Vt.) in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary but who had not registered as Democrats. Even Ivanka TrumpIvana (Ivanka) Marie TrumpKushner: Trump will make chief of staff decision 'when he’s ready' McCarthy dismisses Dem-led Trump probes John Kelly was always doomed to fail as chief of staff MORE got caught up in the anachronistic law; she did not register as a Republican in time to vote for her father in the 2016 GOP presidential primary.

“We are a state that has the most absurd time period, a huge deadline far, far in advance to change your party registration,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York and a board member of the Let New York Vote coalition. “Nobody’s thinking about elections [a year out].”

New York’s election laws were written in the 1890s at the height of Tammany Hall’s influence over city and state politics to cement its power. They were last amended in a meaningful way in the 1930s. 

In recent years, those laws have acted as incumbent protection plans, boxing out challengers who hoped to oust out-of-touch legislators or members of Congress in partisan primaries. Rep. Joseph Crowley’s (D) surprising primary loss this year to Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D) represented the exception, not the rule.

“There’s very little impetus among party bosses to make it easier to vote,” Lerner said. “New York is thought of as this deep blue, progressive state, and it has this retrogressive election system.”

Both Democrats and Republicans defended the system and worked to bottle up reforms in the state legislature. 

“I tried to advance some of these proposals [in the state Assembly], and I ran into some of my own Democratic colleagues,” Gianaris said in an interview. “There is an incumbent versus outsider frame that also comes into play.”

Some of the laws Senate Democrats hope to change are unique, and uniquely confusing, to New York.

The Empire State is the only state in the country that holds primaries for state and federal offices on separate days. As a consequence, its primary turnout numbers are among the nation’s lowest. Senate Democratic Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins has introduced legislation to marry the separate dates.

State law also lays out specifics about ballot design to such a degree that ballots must include a clenched fist with an extended index finger and such outdated party symbols as a five-pointed star indicating a candidate of the Democratic Party.

“We have some very antiquated ballot design laws,” Kavanagh said.

For years, the New York state legislature was divided between the Democratic-controlled Assembly and the Republican-controlled state Senate. In more recent years, Republicans have maintained control, even though they won fewer seats than did Democrats, with the help of a rump faction of senators who called themselves the Independent Democratic Conference.

Under divided control, even commonsense reforms were impossible. When Congress passed the Help America Vote Act after the 2000 elections, President George W. Bush’s Justice Department had to sue New York to force it to update its voting equipment.

But this year, Democrats won 40 of the 63 seats in the state Senate, handing the party unified control of the legislature and the governor’s mansion. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who has proposed several election law overhauls in annual budget outlines, has signaled he would support many of the reforms Senate Democrats plan to advance.

“There’s a lot of ways in which we can now move into the 21st century,” said Wendy Weiser, who heads the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “There will be no more excuse not to update this system.”